Sunday, April 13, 2014

Anne Frank: A Heroine for Today's Teen

You are going into hiding for two years.  You have ten minutes to pack your school backpack.  What are you going to bring?  

This is how I start my Diary of Anne Frank unit.  Confronted with the unthinkable concept of stuffing everything they own into a JanSport, the students are immediately riveted.  Then of course comes the inevitable question – “I can take my iPhone right?”

As the educational pendulum continues to push out longer literary works in favor of shorter informational texts, I maintain The Diary of Anne Frank is worth the read and a relevant mainstay in the middle school classroom canon.   

Against a background of unbelievably horrific events, students are continually captivated by the diary’s universal talking points of family, survival, nobility, adolescence, identity and courage.  Students are especially interested in Anne’s periodic tensions with her mother, her growing romance with Peter, and of course the inordinate amount of bravery needed to survive life in the attic and an unknowing future. 

Perhaps it is Anne’s profound life quotes revealing wisdom beyond her years that pull at my students’ heartstrings -

 “Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

 “I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”

“I don't think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

“Whoever is happy will make others happy.”

And finally the most heartfelt, and profound, that epitomizes Anne’s magnanimous persona:
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.”

The Diary of Anne Frank triumphs in today’s classroom because of the essence of our young author’s message:  Hope in the face of adversity.  Perhaps best stated by one of my students, “Anne Frank has inspired me to live life to the fullest and never lose hope no matter what.”

Sunday, April 6, 2014

How to Survive the Super Mean Girl

An Excerpt From the Award-Winning Tell-All
Lucy and CeCee's How to Survive (and Thrive) in Middle School 

Just like there are S.M.T.’s (Super Mean Teachers) in middle school, there are S.M.G.’s – (Super Mean Girls).  (Pssst, some S.M.G.’s even grow up to be S.M.T.’s.)  We can pretty much guarantee you will probably have to deal with an S.M.G. in middle school.  This is because the social hierarchy intensifies.  Cliques get clique-ier, which means girls get meaner.  But what you have to understand is the “mean factor” stems from a desire to feel powerful.  We know that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, but to understand why girls can be mean may help you deal with it.

Before moving on, let’s contrast girls with guys.  Of course there are S.M.G.’s (Super Mean Guys), too.  But they are an entirely different breed.  At their worst, guys will just call each other some unmentionables, have a fistfight, only to throw hoops and be friends an hour later.  With girls, it’s much more sinister, covert, and under the table.

Enter the S.M.G.:  She’ll roll her eyes at you, smirk, and whisper something to her B.F.F. as you walk by.  Then she’ll laugh.  You brush it off and think it’s just happenstance.  Maybe she’s talking about someone else.  But the next time you see her at lunch she mutters, “Nice clothes.  Where do you shop, the Good Will?”  She’ll continue bashing you to her friends by cutting down your clothes, hair, and overall personality, only to finish with an “Am I mean?”  And you can’t really tell an adult because 1) tattling is considered really lame in middle school and 2) she hasn’t done anything super bad.  Still, you feel terrible and want to cry.  Why?  Because S.M.G.’s never took Kindness 101.  She’s a Super Mean Girl and she’s getting to you, which is exactly what she wants to do.  

So – here’s how to deal:

First, confront the S.M.G. when she’s alone and without her entourage.  Ask what you did to upset her.  This will probably get her to stop.  Most S.M.G.’s don’t expect or like to be confronted.

Every mean girl group has an alpha or a queen bee, who’s like the ring leader.  If you befriend the alpha queen bee, her followers will most likely leave you alone (unless it’s the alpha who’s being the S.M.G.).

If the S.M.G. is talking about you with her S.M.G. clique, you have a few options.  You can 1) ignore them, 2) laugh it off, or 3) stare them right in the eyes.  Whatever you do, look super confident (head up, shoulders back) so not to appear intimidated.  Don’t look at the ground or act schlumpy.  Always appear poised and in control, and never resort to physical violence!  

It’s hard but try not to cry.  If the S.M.G. sees peer-tears, she knows she “has you,” which is what she wants – power and control.

Know that chances are the S.M.G. will get tired of picking on you and stop.  She rarely sticks with one victim and you probably aren’t her only target.  Just remember that you’re awesome and she’s obviously jealous of something you possess (beauty, brains, personality, all three).  Stick with your own group of friends who love you.


S.M.G.’s are bad, but there is a world of difference between her and the cyberbully.  With just the click of a mouse, a cyberbully can ruin someone’s life – permanently.  It’s a serious offense and in a few extreme cases has even led to suicide.

First, know what a cyberbully is.  A cyberbully:

1. Pretends they are someone else online in order to trick or obtain information
2. Spreads lies and rumors about other people
3. Sends or forwards hurtful messages or texts  
4. Posts pictures of others without their consent or in embarrassing situations, like changing in the locker room.

This is nothing to fool around with.  If you come across a cyberbully, identify them and block all communication.  Go and report it to an adult immediately, such as a teacher, counselor, or parent.  And never, ever retaliate with your own cyber attack.  For more information, there are helpful websites such as

Thursday, March 20, 2014

How to be a Great B.F.F.

An Excerpt From the Award-Winning Tell-All
Lucy and CeCee's How to Survive (and Thrive) in Middle School 

If you’re lucky enough to have a B.F.F., you should value and treasure her.  Someone you can laugh and cry with, dream and gripe with, who loves you at your best and accepts you at your worst is a gift under ordinary circumstances.  In middle school, it’s a blessing.

On the other hand, if you don’t have a B.F.F., don’t stress.  Friendships take time to foster and grow.  Here are some ways to get and keep a B.F.F.:

Be true to yourself.  Don’t ever act like someone you’re not or compromise your principles.  

Listen as much as you talk.  Give advice only when asked for or when necessary.

Be trustworthy.  Keep secrets secret.

Spend time together.  Like a plant, friendships need to be tended to or they die.

Find activities you both like to do together, whether it be shopping, scrapbooking, or cochillin’ on the biPod.

Praise her for her accomplishments and she should do the same for you.  Be each other’s secret cheerleaders.

Don’t be overly competitive.

Avoid jealousy.  Obviously your friend is going to have some qualities you find admirable or you wouldn’t be friends with her.  Nonetheless you shouldn’t envy those things.  If you are the jealous type, work on your own self-esteem and be grateful for what you have.

The B.F.F. Tiff

All B.F.F.’s squabble once in a while.  When you do have an argument, give your B.F.F.  some time and space to reflect about the situation.  Then talk it out and really listen to her concerns and ask that she do the same for you.  In the interim, don’t bad mouth or start rumors about her.  If you both respect the relationship, your squabble should blow over and you’ll be B.F.F.’s again before you know it.

 CeCee and I have been B.F.F.’s since our sandbox days.  Sure we get into little tiffies, like the time she wouldn’t let me copy her homework.  But we get over it.  We’ll be B.F.F.’s for a long time I’m sure, although lately I worry that she could get into the Kandi Klass Club.  I see Kandi trying to talk to her like she’s someone really cool.  It freaks me out and makes me all crazy with jealousy.  Also, CeCee is so pretty, it’s scary - especially when she takes off her glasses.  I curse the day she gets contacts.

Lucy is the quintessential best friend.  Okay, maybe she’s not as principled as I would like and her morality can be a little slippery, but she means well and has a good heart.  Also, her loyalty is off the charts.  The girl would fight off a swarm of soul-snatching sorceresses for me without so much as a thought.  I just fret that sometimes that she could be accepted into the popular A-crowd and forget about me.  She’s so gregarious and I’m such a social clodhopper, it’s bound to happen.  But I have to believe she’s better than that.  After all, trustworthiness is most important when it comes to B.F.F.’s and Lucy has never proven traitorous in any circumstance.  Hence, Lucy’s the ultimate!!


Lots of B.F.F.’s keep a scrapbook of their memories.  It’s a cool way to celebrate your friendship.  Here’s how:

Buy a big photo album and blow up a picture of you and your best friend for the cover page.  Decorate the page with drawings, sparkles, and stickers.

Have a B.F.F. dedication page where you each write everything you love about your best friend.

Decorate pages with pictures and make captions.  Examples: trips to the mall, sleepovers, getting ready for school dances, etc.

Write on topics that interest you both, such as school, family, crushes, dreams, fears, etc.

Warning: Make sure your scrapbook stays private and out of the hands of bratty brothers, snooping sisters, and prying parents.  Decide on a place where you will keep the scrapbook - hopefully under lock and key.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Affect v. Effect

True Confession of an English teacher with a master’s degree: Affect v. Effect makes me go Arrrrrrgh!  They are two truly evil twins of the homophone family that never cease to give me the cringies when compelled to teach.

Here’s the deal:  Affect should be a verb and Effect should be a noun.  But Noooooo!   Effect has to be stubbornly peevish and fill in for a verb meaning to bring about.  Example: Some say greenhouse emissions have effected a change in the environment.

So when I go to expound upon this horrible revelation to my middle school students and see that lost fazed, clueless look on their puerile faces as if to say, Why have you abandoned us, Ms. Dana, and taken all sense of logic, common sense, and rules with you? And that’s when I drop the big grammar bomb akin to Santa Claus isn’t real: The English language is rife with counter-intuitive, subversive, pesky little deviants, as I sheepishly write the following on the board:

Example: Since there is no time like the present, 
        he thought it was time to present the present!  

And this is where the true confession part comes in.  Sometimes I have to think about affect v. effect.  Because that thorny little exception to the rule trips me up, too.  That’s when I pull out the extra worksheets and have a little intervention, remediation session with myself until I’ve mastered proficiency.  Resulting outcome - The affect of effect affects me ineffectually, thereby effecting ill-affected affection effective immediately.

Take that, English Grammar Zombie Goblin Boogeyman!!!!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Mnemonic Device: A Tool to Remember

I'm a fan of F.A.N.B.O.Y.S.  In addition to being kind of cute and funny looking (see visual below), they help me recall the seven coordinating conjunctions: for, and, not, but, or yet, and so.

If not for F.A.N.B.O.Y.S., I would be a lost cause in recalling these seven grammatically significant words.  (Especially since the part of my brain that is supposed to store such information seems to be shriveling up to a raisin, as I enter into my [ahem!] early thirties).  See visual below:
My 30-something-year-old brain

God bless the mnemonic device!  Come on!  You know you use them, too.  Remember I before C, except after E?  Or how about, Thirty days hath September.  April, June, and November?  Mnemonic devices were used by the Ancient Greeks, and I think they were definitely onto something.  Now that it's standardized testing time, my students and I are preoccupied with mnemonic devices.  My students love them, and as their Language Arts Captain who wishes to reach Literary Proficient Land - so do I.  See examples below:

Author's Purpose = P.I.E. - Persuade, Inform, Entertain

Reading Comprehension = R.A.F.T.  = Role, Audience, Format, Topic

Proofreading = C.O.P.S. - Capitalization, Overall Appearance, Punctuation, Spelling

Or just handy little one-liners, such as

Desert v. Dessert = I'll have seconds on dessert.

Further v. Farther = Further exploration takes your farther.  

Mnemonics rule!  If there isn't already a Mnemonic Device Holiday, I think there should be.  I wish there was a mnemonic for everything.  But I will settle for the aforementioned helpful ones, and a few more that I present in this handy little PowerPoint available on the wonderful website: TeachersPayTeachers:

Happy Mnemonic-ing!!  

Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, Twelfth, Adult Education, Staff -

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Feeling a Little Dingy? What's With All Those Bells?

An Excerpt From the Award-Winning Tell-All
Lucy and CeCee's How to Survive (and Thrive) in Middle School 

The first thing you have to get used to in middle are all the bells.  On average, you will probably hear 15-20 bells a day.  Some portend doom and gloom, like that first bell of the day; some portend joy and freedom, like the last bell of the day; and some just mean, Get your butt in gear and hurry up already!  It’s enough to make anyone feel a little ding-y, but you’ll get used to it.  The trick with bells is to use them to your advantage and not be late or tardy, as it’s called in middle school.

Being perpetually tardy is a bad habit to get into.  We know – it’s tough!  Especially when you only have five minutes to make it across the school when the halls are teeming with PDA’ers, stop-n-chatters, and hall huggers.  And top that off with having to use the restroom and going to your locker???  It’s impossible, right?

Actually it’s not.  Here’s how NOT to be tardy:

Before school, plan accordingly.  Have your clothes laid out and take your shower the night before to save time – especially if you’re prone to hitting Snooze in the morning.

There are four pivotal times you must go to your locker: in the morning before school, before lunch, after lunch, and after school.  Going to your locker between your other classes is up to you, but we don’t recommend it because it wastes time.  Try to prepare for two-three classes at a time so you don’t always have to stop.  If you do stop at your locker, try to keep it super organized so you’re in and out quickly.

It’s hard, but dodge the stop-n-chatters and hall huggers.

Try to pack up your things a little early in each class.  Don’t always wait for the bell.

If possible, try to get a seat by the door in each of your classes so you can bizounce the second the bell rings.

Walk briskly and assertively in the hallways.  Don’t do the turtle crawl.

Don’t cyber check between classes.  It’s a bad habit that’s sure to slow down your stride.

If you have to go to the bathroom, do it quickly and between classes where distance is the shortest.

Try to find shortcuts to your classes.  You’d be surprised how cutting through the library or taking a certain stairway can shave minutes off your time.  

If you ARE tardy, walk in quietly and don’t make a big production of it.  Maybe you’ll luck out and the teacher won’t notice.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Hurray for Donors Choose!!

Donors Choose rocks!  For those in the know, is an online charity that helps teachers fund projects and supplies from pencils to microscopes.  Donors can choose (hence the name)  which programs they wish to fund based on need, location, or inspiration.  No contribution is too small.  In return, teachers post photos of students using the materials, write impact letters, and encourage students to send handwritten thank you notes - a rare phenomenon these days!

I heard of Donors Choose from committed colleagues for years, but this was the first time I actually requested my own project.  I wanted my students to read Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street.  I knew they would love the book but needed a class set of thirty.  Like most school teachers who endlessly pay out of pocket for classroom essentials, I didn't have a spare $450.  In the past I would have abandoned the project and stuck to the mind numbing anthology textbook, but not this time!  I went to Donors Choose.  Within five weeks, my project was fully funded and I had my class set of House on Mango Street.

My students just finished the book and as predicted, they devoured it.  Esperanza Cordero, the young Latina protagonist, spoke to my students with the rite-of-passage vignettes and enduring themes of home is where the heart is.  The ultimate testimonial: "I hate to read but this book was kinda cool, Ms. Dana."  

Thank you, Donors Choose!  I'll be back...